By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   July 9, 2024

What is it about the human psyche that makes so many of us want to collect things? Does it go back to our animal ancestry, in which many creatures’ survival depended on their collecting materials to eat, or from which to construct their homes? Maybe, but I think it also reflects our very human desire to put disparate objects in some sort of order. The attraction of postage stamp collecting – a hobby now nearly 200 years old – must lie at least partly in the wide variety of subjects, nationalities, and designs, all presented on a small flat surface, and capable of being organized in a wide variety of formats.

But collecting has its very unattractive side, which is known as “hoarding.” Only in recent years has this proclivity begun to be seen as a mental illness. The line is drawn, I suppose, at the point at which this malady begins to interfere with the sufferer’s normal daily life, or the lives of others. So long as it can be kept a secret from those outside the immediate household, the situation can remain more or less under control.

I speak from personal experience because in the last years of her life – and of our 51-year marriage – my wife Dorothy became a hoarder. She was also a wide-ranging traveler, and the hoarded objects were mostly “souvenirs” brought back from her trips. One whole room of our house was filled mostly with all kinds of bags and other containers, virtually from floor to ceiling. There were bags within bags, boxes within boxes, and all kinds of unused luggage. That room, of course, became clogged and unusable for any other purpose – then there started to be an overflow into the hallway, and from there into other rooms. 

You can tell a hoarder from the fact that they show no interest in all their collected items, and never do anything with them.

Dorothy was very sensitive about this subject, and it was no use trying to reason with her. In any case, it was her own (inherited) money which was being used, and in fact, the house itself was also inherited, and solely in her name. My only alternative was to move to our other, smaller, house, which was our office and the headquarters of our business. That, at least, was jointly owned, and I could keep it in a comparatively orderly condition.

I did try one other recourse. I used to write “Bedtime Stories” for Dorothy, and read them to her after she was in bed (while I was still up). I wrote one about a Lord and Lady Baggs who had a private menagerie, in which they collected animals who were themselves collectors, and would be secretly released at night, then bring back things they had found. One of these creatures was a chimpanzee, who specialized in collecting all kinds of bags. There was a complicated plot, but I hoped that Dorothy would somehow get the point. Of course, she didn’t, and failed to see any reflection of herself. After she died, it became my job (helped by some friends) to clear up and dispose of all her accumulations.

But I did have my own collections. Since settling in Santa Barbara and walking extensively about town, I have picked up any money I saw (mostly pennies). I was surprised how much there was. But I fell into the hoarder’s trap of never wanting to part with any of it. However, I also never counted it. I kept each year’s collection separately, and put it in a jar, labelled with the date. And that is where my executors will probably find them.

But I do have another collection which probably deserves more scrutiny. It consists of other objects, besides money, also found on my walks. I keep them in what I call my “Cabinet of Curiosities.” Here my collecting standards are rather high. In order to get into that glass-fronted cabinet, the object must be fairly small, and not easily identifiable as to its origin or purpose. So, they really are curiosities. The trouble is that, once put in, nothing gets taken out again, and I myself no longer know what I have in there, except what can be dimly seen through the glass door. I fantasize about taking everything out, photographing each object separately, and sharing them with friends by email. But that would take a lot of time and effort – and, quite honestly, just writing this article has already taken enough.  


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